Can the working from home model survive the energy crisis? | Jane Parry

After two years of global crisis, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle when it comes to work: employees in the UK no longer want the 9-to-5, bookended by an exhausting and expensive commute.

Anecdotally, that might seem obvious. But having documented the changes to organisational life through the Covid-19 pandemic as part of the Work after Lockdown project (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council), what is significant about these findings is that this mindset shift appears to be permanent. Figures show nearly 40% of working adults in Great Britain are now working across multiple locations in a hybrid working model. However, as the energy crisis threatens to bite, there are warnings that this winter’s looming energy crisis could kill off our new working “culture”. So, which one is it?

Amid the detailed calculations being made, one aspect is already clear: socio-economic circumstances will be a main driver in whether working from home remains firmly rooted in our way of life, and people’s decisions about work are still the product of their circumstances.

One public sector graduate trainee told me that, by her calculations, the cost of train fares, coffees and snacks left her better off working from home. But if energy costs rise sharply, she will probably switch to travelling into the office over shouldering a punitively high heating bill. It is precisely this fluctuating picture that makes this winter so difficult to plan for. Another senior manager working for a London local authority told me that while some of her staff had indicated that they might want to be coming into the office more often in the coming months, there was a lack of concrete information or certainty.

When we consider how working trends might be affected by the rising cost of living, the geographies of labour markets cannot be ignored. With the UK having some of the longest commutes in Europe, financial savings from reduced commuting were some of the most notable markers of lockdown delivering some measurable benefit to working people. And as train fares continue to outstrip inflation, organisations staffed by suburban commuters are likely to find employees continue to be more attached to working from home to save money, while those who live closer to offices may find the lure of a heated space outweighs the benefits of home working.

Of course, these financial decisions are rarely made in isolation. In our research, we saw people adapt the quality of their workspace over the lockdowns, working in separate rooms where possible to prioritise privacy and maximise concentration. But as heating becomes more expensive, this looks less feasible, while merging home workspaces could provoke personal tensions, damage productivity and even have a disruptive effect upon family relationships.

People’s homes will also be a crucial factor in their decisions on where to work. One senior manager told me that they feel the Sam Vines Boots theory feels more relevant than ever in the public sector – that financial pressures are regressive, hitting poorer groups harder. Those with better insulated houses may be more able to absorb energy rises, and continue to enjoy the greater flexibility of hybrid working, while those in less maintained or rented accommodation might find working from home unaffordable, or unrealistic.

This is an amplification of what we found in our lockdown research, that property resources were a key differentiator in working from home experiences. One young, inner-city employee told me that she has now shelved her plans to move out of shared accommodation. And as more and more people occupy shared spaces for financial reasons, this will no doubt have an impact on how appealing, or even possible, it is to work from home.

Financial hardship could trigger movement towards workplaces to reduce travel costs, but as housing demand continues to outstrip supply in many areas, even in previously “affordable” parts of the country, rising energy bills and food costs could threaten to push working people towards homelessness. Inevitably, lower-paid, but key, sectors of the labour market are at a greater risk of these negative outcomes.

Parents, too, face complicated decisions. The UK already has the most expensive childcare in Europe, and, for many, working from home has enabled them to save costs on the wrap-around care that they previously needed to cover travel time. This winter, for some, this situation may no longer represent a saving, and the extra cost of childcare will need to be balanced against rising heating bills. The unavoidable losses here will be to family life.

There is much to concern us as we look ahead to winter. Businesses will have to prioritise skilled diversity management to support the different circumstances evolving around office presence, as well as the stresses that staff find themselves working through during a time of crisis. Offices may become staffed, temporarily at least, by proportionately more younger people and lower-paid workers, which could usher in culture changes around visibility and progression at work.

But we must be cautious not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Working from home boosted individual productivity – an unexpected gain for employers. Even before the energy crisis, office occupancy was no longer being prioritised by any of our case study organisations after the pandemic. This is a huge shift in UK working culture that we could not have predicted would have occurred so rapidly.

However desperate it might feel, this looming crisis, if managed correctly, could offer an opportunity to capitalise on the working gains that the pandemic kickstarted. It will be just as crucial that businesses work out when they need office space, as it will be for employees to calculate how their working patterns can help them weather the energy crisis.

If the pandemic has taught us anything about our changing work culture, it’s that agility should not be underestimated in the face of ever more complicated and unpredictable scenarios. Offices are entering the next period of change, with two new resources to hand: an infinitely more flexible workforce than in 2019, and an enhanced appreciation of the connection between wellbeing and productivity. Now is the time to protect these hard-won gains that have persisted so far despite the most extraordinary of circumstances. Giving up on working from home would be to lose a valuable weapon in our arsenal needed to weather this latest storm, and the ones to come.

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